Saving forests and removing invasives in Saanich
FROM HIS HOME IN EAST SAANICH, Harry Drage tells me “It’s fun to say that you worked your entire career in the forests of BC.” A member of the Saanich Environmental Advisory Committee for over ten years, Drage, a forester, has been an ardent volunteer in both Haro Woods and Konukson Park (in East Saanich) since his retirement. This summer, Drage received Saanich’s Individual Environmental Achievement Award for 15 years of leadership in stewarding invasive species removal in Haro Woods and Konukson, a testament to his dedication to local ecosystems.
Together with local residents, Drage has removed invasive species, applied for grants, helped to inspire the community and supported student research in the parks. He and other volunteers have logged over 4,500 hours clearing large areas of invasive species from both parks. Konukson encompasses seven hectares of upland terrain in Ten Mile Point, with arbutus and rocky outcrops; Haro Woods is a large parcel northeast (5.6 hectares) of the University of Victoria, with tall stands of second-growth Douglas fir.
Harry Drage (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
“Haro is about half done,” Drage tells me, and now, areas that have been cleared of invasives are recovering well, with ferns, snowberry and other native underbrush sprouting up under the firs. “You can actually see the [restored] area of the park gradually moving through like a force not to be denied,” he laughs.
Haro Woods was the centre of recent controversy during the planning for the region’s sewage treatment facility, which will see wastewater and biosolids pumped to McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt for treatment. As part of the plan, Haro Woods was proposed as the site for a series of underground attenuation tanks and an above-ground pumping station; the construction would have seen a significant portion of forest cut down. In 2009, public consultation around the Haro Woods site resulted in strong pushback by local residents. I remember attending those meetings (at the time as an employee of the CRD). Haro Woods, then an unprotected greenspace zoned for large lot residential development, was nonetheless known informally as a forested trail system, and supported a variety of uses (including mountain bike trails). Some of the meetings grew quite heated.
Drage demurs talking about this period. “I know some people think confrontation is hard to overcome,” he says. He tries to remain optimistic, focusing instead on the cooperation between residents’ associations and developers, and the growing support for the environment, and biodiversity, by Saanich. “We have 50 volunteer projects [in the municipality] with people stepping up. They’re coming forward on their own. That’s a really good sign.”
As a result of the community’s resistance to the proposed pumping station site, the CRD retreated from its plan. Attenuation tanks will still be built on part of the site, but they will be located underground in a previously disturbed area. In 2011, Saanich purchased the CRD-owned portions of the site for $7.6 million, allowing for protection of 94 percent of the urban forest as parkland in 2013. For Drage, who began restoration work long before the land caught the CRD’s eye as a potential sewage treatment site, it simply shows the commendable actions of Saanich, which, along with the acquisition of Panama Flats in 2011, added 79 hectares to its park inventory in one year.
Drage applauds the purchase, and his experiences in the park mirror many I heard speak at those 2009 community consultation sessions. The decision to save Haro Woods, however, many not be as simple as portrayed by former Mayor Frank Leonard’s joyous announcement.
Saanich is the largest municipality in the CRD, and its reach stretches beyond the high-value properties of Queenswood, Ten Mile Point and Cadboro Bay, where many residents have time to become organized defenders of local green spaces. There are numerous properties throughout Saanich’s land base that would also seem to demand attention. Priorities change depending on the lens through which we look. Haro Woods is a recovering second-growth forest. Drage’s work has rid approximately half the park of invasive species. The other half sits waiting, while Saanich concludes its park management plan. But damage to the park over the decades—by invasives, through the construction of mountain-bike jumps, and through heavy use by residents—is extensive.
In contrast, one might look at the protection of Maltby Lake, also within Saanich’s boundaries (and covered in this magazine). From an ecological perspective, Maltby has a much higher biodiversity rating; it contains old-growth pockets of Douglas fir; it supports a colony of freshwater jellyfish and dozens of listed species. And it could eventually be connected to Francis King Park, forming a contiguous wildlife corridor through the area. Maltby is owned in part by the Land Conservancy of BC, and in part by private landowners. Should that $7.6 million have been put instead toward purchase of portions of Maltby, or of other parts of the Saanich Highlands, which are under increasing threat from development?
Drage has another solution. As a forester trained in the latter half of the 20th century, he subscribes to management practices that see a forest as a resource or a crop, as well as an ecological refugium. For much of his career, Drage was district manager in the Salmon Arm and Shushwap Lake area. In Victoria, he worked as an analyst for the BC Forest Practices branch, including planning for woodlots. For him, city boulevards—and forests such as Haro Woods—provide an opportunity for use as woodlots.
City trees could be a part of this plantation, offers Drage, with orchards planted on side streets (and even on some lanes of streets, he offers) and selective harvesting of larger forests. It’s a novel vision. But when asked, he doesn’t have a ready answer to the question of biodiversity levels in mature forests as opposed to woodlots. The former support species such as great horned owls and bats. The latter tend not to have the decaying trees and forest floor detritus necessary to house and feed these creatures.
Still, planting more trees would certainly help bolster Saanich’s currently spotty record with boulevard tree planting. “To me,” he says, “[boulevard planting] isn’t moving very far very fast. The profile needs to be increased.” One of the simplest ways to combat global warming, he stresses, is through the planting of trees. As someone who’s been trying to get my nearly treeless street in Saanich planted for over seven years, I concur. Drage would also like to see more incentives for landowners and developers to choose nature-scaping and the retention of trees on their properties.
When beginning work in Haro Woods and Konukson, Drage had to read up on invasives before he knew what to look for in each park’s tangle of English ivy, Daphne, Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom. In Konukson, he and other volunteers sectioned off areas to work methodically, somewhat like what’s happening in Cuthbert Holmes Park, in Saanich’s Tillicum neighbourhood, or the meticulous record-keeping that Jarrett Teague does for John Dean Park. “It’s almost a war, in some cases it’s so thick,” he says. “When the last invasive [in a section] comes out of the ground screaming in agony, it’s not fun, but it’s close to that.”
Haro Woods and Konukson are all the better for his and his compatriots’ dedication. “It’s amazing to walk through [the park] now. The natural plants have come back—oh, it was fabulous,” he says. Due to the region’s deer overpopulation problem, the rebound of native species in some areas hasn’t been as quick as he’d like to see, but he has a solution for that, too. “Venison could become the feature meal out of the forest!” he tells me. I offer to provide the wild blackberry sauce to complete the dish.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast. She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between social sciences and poetry.